Commentators are starting to figure out that the battle over Wisconsin public employee rights, couched by Gov. Scott Walker as an argument over the budget, has nothing to do with the budget. And we’ve discussed that in this space. You have the 200 legislative policy items stuffed into the bill; the cuts to Medicaid and centralizing control of the program in the hands of a Heritage Foundation writer who called for states to drop it; the measure allowing for no-bid contract sales of state-owned heating/cooling/power plants; and on and on. But I don’t think anyone’s broken it down as well as this story in National Journal.

The state’s entire budget shortfall for this year — the reason that Walker has said he must push through immediate cuts — would be covered by the governor’s relatively uncontroversial proposal to restructure the state’s debt.

By contrast, the proposals that have kicked up a firestorm, especially his call to curtail the collective-bargaining rights of the state’s public-employees, wouldn’t save any money this year [...]

In January, the Wisconsin Legislative Fiscal Bureau reported that the state would face a $137 million shortfall before the end of the fiscal year on June 30. The governor’s budget repair bill proposes a debt restructuring that would save the state $165 million in the near term, more than covering the shortfall.

The legislation would also borrow money from a federal welfare program to cover further state shortfalls, and it includes a provision that would allow the sale of the state’s public utilities without a bidding process or public oversight.

While public unions have agreed to almost $30 million in pay cuts this year if they can keep their bargaining rights, Walker and other Republicans argue that restrictions on union bargaining are necessary to maintain the cuts over time.

As I understand it, the refinancing doesn’t save all $165 million in the near term, which is why there are the $30 million in givebacks on pension and health care contributions (which amount to pay cuts) and the other borrowing. But in the main, this is correct. As far as filling the shortfall – “repairing” the budget, as it were, these are the only proposals that matter. You could accomplish them in a ten-page bill. But the budget repair bill is 147 pages. Because it includes a host of unrelated policy items.

The bill includes a provision that would allow the state to sell or contract out the operation of heating, cooling, and power plants without a bidding process and without consulting the state’s independent utility regulator. Democratic legislators worried aloud that the process would attract abuse, and Jon Peacock, director of the Wisconsin Budget Project, called the no-bid approach a “red flag.”

The bill also employs “emergency” powers that would allow the governor’s appointed health secretary to redefine the foundations of the state’s Medicaid program, Badgercare, ranging from eligibility to premiums, with only passive legislative review. The attorney in the legislature’s nonpartisan reference bureau who prepared the bill warned that a court could invalidate the statute for violating separation of powers doctrine.

In addition, the stripping of collective bargaining rights, the main point of contention for the protesters, would lead to a $46 million cut in federal transportation matching funds, because it would make the state ineligible for such federal money. So the result of this budget repair bill, as I see it, would be… ANOTHER budget repair bill, to cover the $46 million shortfall. Assembly Democrats, who are still in session working on the bill right now, have prepared an amendment to ensure eligibility for the federal funding; Republicans are predictably unconcerned.

This is slightly complicated stuff, but the public seems to be getting it; they view these kind of worker’s rights as fundamental, and they aren’t swayed by Scott Walker’s claim of it being all about the budget, which is total nonsense. And this doubt among the public may be spreading to the Republican legislators.

Wisconsin State Sen. Bob Jauch, Democrat from Ashland and Bayfield, said on Wednesday that Gov. Scott Walker may not have unanimous support among Republicans in the state senate for his assault on unions.

“There are six to seven Republican senators that hate this bill, really hate this bill,” said Jauch on WOJB radio this morning. Republicans outnumber Democrats 19-14 in the state senate, so if three vote against it, the bill would die.

Jauch says he’s been in touch with his Republican counterparts and they are “trying to come up with an alternative.”

We’ll see.